With a snap general election called and the current political landscape in flux I wouldn’t be prepared to make any predictions on the outcome but it is safe to say that come election day town halls, sports halls and conference centres across the country will be buzzing with activity. A stream of reporters, candidates and supporters will be desperately trying to send and receive information through every media channel available.

The demand for good connectivity at election counts and associated events has mushroomed over the last ten years. We were first involved in a general election in 2010, providing services for the first televised leader debates, events which demonstrated the power and reach of Twitter in politics for the first time. Since then things have moved on with 140-character messages supplemented by live video services in the form of Periscope and Facebook Live.

Come June 8th social media channels will be pumping vast amounts of data around the UK and beyond, the difference this time is that with such short notice it will be all too easy for venues to get caught out and provide frustratingly inadequate connectivity.

For anyone tasked with running an event, be it a count, press and media centre, or political party gathering it is critical to act now and ensure you have the right communications infrastructure in place. For anything above the smallest of gatherings relying on data connections from normal mobile phone operators is a risky strategy as they are not designed to deal with the surge in demand and load at a media-centric event.

Some venues may well have an element of existing Wi-Fi infrastructure but does it have the capacity in terms of ability to support an increased number of users? Does it have the internet backhaul to support the high data volumes and video streams which today’s press and media demand? These aspects can be assessed quickly and used to drive requirements which may include additional Wi-Fi capacity and associated internet access.

Other ‘pop-up’ locations may have no existing service and require a full temporary provision. The trickiest part of this is normally the internet backhaul, which with short notice may have to be provided by satellite (not as expensive as people tend to think) or a wireless link from another location.

It is sometimes possible to provision additional ADSL and FTTC (BT Infinity) internet services at quite short notice depending on the location but these services need to be booked as soon as possible. Fibre optic services take at least three months so new services are not feasible in this scenario, however, existing services may be capable of a ‘burst’, temporarily increasing speed for a short period.

With campaigning well under way smaller pop-up gatherings often also require some additional support which may be in the form of specialised 3G/4G bonding units which can provide localised Wi-Fi coverage whilst on the road in the campaign bus.

For larger events, especially those with a big broadcast media presence, there are additional challenges in the form of interference disrupting Wi-Fi due to people bringing their own Mi-Fi devices or other broadcasting equipment. These events need centralised spectrum management, or preferably a single central provider, to ensure everyone co-exists harmoniously when it comes to connectivity.

Even with the connectivity there are other factors – security being a key one. Understanding how to control and manage a network is essential to avoid any embarrassing information leaks. Additional phones may be required which can be deployed quickly using VoIP telephony rather than traditional copper lines. It may also be important to have some printing capability available.

In the modern social media driven political landscape, ensuring the connectivity & IT works flawlessly is just as important as the tables, chairs, tea, coffee, campaign bus and printed propaganda.

‘Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster’ has never been a truer saying in the social world of retweets and ‘likes’. I wasn’t at Mobile World Congress this week but I did follow the stream of tweets originating from there. Amongst those tweets were comments about poor Wi-Fi coverage, I have no idea whether the Wi-Fi was poor or not but with a few negative comments bouncing around the ether it can quickly lead to the perception that another large conference has not taken it’s audiences desire to use mobile technology seriously – particularly damaging  when it’s a mobile technology conference!

The chances are it was a few people having localised problems with their devices but its another example of the damage that can be inflicted very quickly when attendees feel they are experiencing a poor service. Both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer have also experienced the pain of poor launch event Wi-Fi in the last year, with hundreds of press watching and commenting, and the result that the issues became a bigger headline than the product itself. So, what can you do to avoid the issues at your conference or launch?

1) Know your audience – What type of press is attending? What’s the demographic of the audience? You might think only tech events need technical services but many launches these days need high quality internet, for example London’s Fashion week had a huge amount of live blogging along with video streaming, posting of images and tweeting. Understanding these aspects is the starting point for working out what level of service is required.

2) Be realistic about capacity – Poor Wi-Fi will frustrate people more than no Wi-Fi, and good Wi-Fi with no sensible internet capacity is just as bad. Mobile data demand is growing exponentially but far too often the capacity required is under called. Budgets may be a challenge but often the problem is exasperated with last minute bookings which have a higher cost. Internet bandwidth is not something that should be an afterthought, it should be up towards the top of the requirements.

3) Work with social media – Working on the assumption that people who are tweeting and blogging will look after themselves is missing the opportunity to engage with a huge audience. People will tweet regardless so it is critical to get involved  to address comments. For example if someone tweets the Wi-Fi is bad, wouldn’t it be great to send a support engineer over to check everything is OK with their system? They are then far more likely to post a positive comment.

4) Offer a variety of options – Although Wi-Fi is great there will always be someone who has a problem getting connected, having somewhere for people to go and plug a cable in as a fall back creates a great impression. Couple that with support staff who understand the common issues around firewalls, VPNs, connection agents and drivers and the press will feel they are being catered for.

5) Partner with the venue – Don’t just accept that the venue provided Wi-Fi will work for you and your customers’ requirements, in the vast majority of cases this is not the case. Check they have dealt with a similar scale of event, understand how they intend to support users, question their capacity. High capacity Wi-Fi is a very different game to a typical casual usage Wi-Fi installation and many common wireless products are just not up to the job.

It may be a cliche that we ‘live in a connected world’ but we do, which is both powerful and dangerous, and most importantly is something that cannot be ignored if you want to maximise good exposure.

There’s plenty of press coverage of the recent, much anticipated, announcement of the approval of the Wi-Fi Direct standard. On the surface non-technical folks would be unlikely to give it a second thought but if you rely on Wi-Fi networks at events then Wi-Fi Direct could be a cause for concern. So what exactly is it and why the concern?

In simple terms think of Bluetooth but using a Wi-Fi standard i.e. device to device communication without the use of a ‘Wireless Access Point’. OK , but we have Bluetooth so why bother? Potentially better range, better performance and a single wireless standard across devices. Also factor in that Bluetooth has never really made it big in the US whereas Wi-Fi has.

But the more technical folks already know how to do ‘ad hoc’ wireless networks today using laptops and wireless adapters so what’s the difference? Not a lot, other than making it simpler and giving it a standard so that a wider range of devices can be certified. Sounds great, so I can connect my laptop directly to my wireless printer? Yes, and any other device that becomes ‘Wi-Fi Direct Certified’.

On one level Wi-Fi Direct is potentially a great addition to the connectivity tool-set, not a replacement for Bluetooth but a complimentary offering, a sort of next level up from a Personal Area Network (PAN), however there is a downside.

The downside is two fold, firstly imagine what happens when you put hundreds of users in a small space all firing up Wi-Fi Direct. Remember what used to happen in a room full of laptops with infrared connectivity and the constant ‘whoosh’ noise as they all kept finding one another and tried to establish a connection! Imagine that over a much wider area with all types of devices.

Today we are still seeing issues at events with the virus which creates an ad hoc network on an infected computer (using a very similar approach to Wi-Fi Direct) called ‘Free Public Wi-Fi’. Unsuspecting users connect to this and then become infected themselves. This virus has been around for some time but has recently gained more press coverage, thankfully it is easy to resolve but it is a nuisance at events where we often see dozens of infected computers.

The second issue is one of interference. The 2.4GHz frequency range that the majority of current Wi-Fi devices use is highly congested. Everything from microwave ovens to Bluetooth devices emit radiation around this frequency, all of which appears as interference to Wi-Fi devices and reduces performance. Now add in hundreds of Wi-Fi Direct networks all emitting in the same frequency range and chaos results. Recent large launches such as the iPhone 4 were hampered by interference caused by hundreds of MiFi devices; Wi-Fi Direct will add a whole new level of interference.

So how bleak is the situation? Hopefully the Wi-Fi Direct standard will address these concerns but details are hard to find at present. Also many of these aspects exist in one form or another today and hence already have to be managed at event sites but it does place increased pressure on the professional network. Two major factors which come into play and can assist are the use of the 5GHz frequency range for critical services where currently there is far less interference (although that is changing). The second factor is to use equipment designed for difficult environments, features such as interference rejection (using aspects such as beam-forming) and automatic channel management become highly important in maintaining a usable network.

The picture may become clearer as more details are made available around the Wi-Fi Direct standard but for any organiser planning on the use of Wi-Fi at an event, especially where there is likely to be a high density of users such as a media centre, it is critical they engage a professional team who have the right tools, equipment and experience to minimise the risk and deliver a quality network.

We are now in the final stages of planning for the Showman’s Show 2010 and looking forward with meeting new and existing customers around the marquees and stands. This year our indoor stand (in the warm, number 68 ) is right on the main row whilst our outdoor stand (171) is at the end of avenue G. Whatever the weather it would be great to see you there.

If you haven’t had the chance to make your way over to the Newbury show ground before, The Showman’s Show is the trade show of choice for the events industry. An eclectic mix of everything from portable toilets, stages, marquees, lighting companies and of course event technology suppliers (us!)

Etherlive at the Showman's Show

The Showman's Show - Etherlive will be at stands 68 & 171

A little taster of some of the things we will be exhibiting:

Reliable Connectivity – We’ll continue to talk about our passion delivering temporary connectivity – wired and wireless for any size and shape of event, from media centres to entire festivals.

An Overview of Connectivity Options – From a phone line and broadband to high capacity fixed line and satellite services. We have a range of options to meet all needs.

Mobile Phone Data Offload – Fed up with smartphone apps not working at events? Find out what we have been doing to resolve this problem.

RFID Solutions – After successful trials in 2010 we will be demonstrating our Smartcard system for crew catering (no more paper vouchers!) and other authorisation aspects.

That’s just a few of the things we will be talking about, along with some old favourites like the Communications Tower Light, CCTV, VoIP, network management & monitoring, flight-case based network hubs and more. Drop in for a chat, a coffee or a bottle of the finest Etherlive water.

The Showman’s Show, Newbury Showground is open 20th and 21st October 9:30am – 4pm.

For further information contact:
Becky Martin-Jones / Mark Hook
www.ascentpr.co.uk
etherlive@ascentpr.co.uk
T. 01454 629 741

Reliable Connectivity Makes Hot Air of Balloon Fiesta Safety Concerns

27 September 2010 – Etherlive has helped organisers of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which attracts over 500,000 attendees, to successfully manage their onsite telecommunications and broadband services.

Richmond Event Management (REM), lead contractor for Europe’s largest Hot Air Balloon event, had concerns over the communications systems used on the site. If disrupted this could raise security issues, or threaten communications between organisers and those working on balloons flights, posing possible public safety risks.

Chris Green, managing director at Etherlive says, “With the Balloon Fiesta attracting more and more people each year, the organisers wanted to safeguard their necessary communications to ensure the safety, security and organisation of the event.

“We were able to do this through the provision of wireless internet access and VOIP handsets to the core crew managing the fiesta. We also installed a back-up service in case of a power outage, and remote phone lines so organisers could relocate to the event and not miss vital calls or messages.”

Ben Hardy of REM, explains, “Dependable comms has become crucial to the success of a large outdoor event like the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. In the past we tried a variety of solutions, like fully installed phone lines, but these were expensive.

“We approached Etherlive, and its guarantee of a trustworthy system proved accurate, enabling us to fully control operations and ensure reliable communications between staff and those at flight control and our media centre. Etherlive’s approach was also more cost effective than in years previous”.

Chris Green summarises, “We’re pleased to have been able to help the organisers manage security and communication issues successfully for the events duration, and that our efforts aided to the smooth running of this year’s Bristol Balloon Fiesta”.

ENDS

About Etherlive
A successful event depends on great performances. From WOMAD and The Green Man Festival to the Southampton Boat Show and the Three Counties Show, Etherlive is the one that makes IT work. Etherlive sits behind the scenes delivering reliable Wi-Fi internet, telephony, CCTV, laptops, PDQs and interactive messaging. Whether in a field or a building, Etherlive makes connectivity simple.

https://etherlive.co.uk

A well connected media centre goes a long way to keeping journalists happy at events, but all too often I see comments in blogs and on twitter about poor Wi-Fi, slow connections and network meltdown. We operate and support connectivity for many media centres during the year ranging from small rooms with only a few users to large centres catering for hundreds of simultaneous users, so I thought I would share our approach to delivering an excellent experience.

The Sky Media Centre had a main room and several breakout & broadcast rooms

One example I will drawn on is the media centre we operated for Sky News for the Election Debate Broadcast earlier this year which had some interesting requirements. It was an unusual event in that the centre was only to operate for about eight hours in total but during the peak hours around the debate it was expected that the room would be used by over 400 journalists, politicians, television and radio crews simultaneously. The brief also required that all access was to be wireless and that various ‘network throttles’ had to be used to block certain types of transfers and maintain fair usage across all users. Although this event was larger than the average media centre the same principles apply whatever the size, the main aspects of which are as follows:

1. The Right Internet Connectivity

This may sound obvious but the wrong connectivity lets down a significant number of media centres, you may have the best wireless on the planet but if the internet connectivity is not good enough the users will be frustrated. The most common problem is using a broadband/ADSL line for connectivity which for all but the smallest of centres is likely to be totally unsuitable. The usage in a media centre is different from typical internet usage in that uploading of data is more important than downloading data. Broadband/ADSL lines are designed primarily for downloading and have a very low upload speed, typically only about 400kbps. The second issue with broadband lines is that the vast majority of providers use a high contention ratio on their service, this means that even if the connection says it’s 8Mbps, at the exchange the connection typically is then shared with up to 50 other users. The busier the exchange the worse the experience becomes.

So what options are available instead? There is no straight forward answer to that as it depends on location, requirements and budget but the key thing is there are different options and with some up front planning the right solution can be put in place which can make a huge difference to the users experience. For the Sky Election Debate we had a 1Gbps fibre link with a second diverse routed failover link providing a typical wireless upload experience of 20Mbps per user (this varied based on the client device, an 802.11n client typically had 80Mbps). I’m not suggesting that all media centres need to offer that sort of speed but it shows it can be done.

2. Wi-Fi / Networking Equipment

Connect up a wireless access point, put it in the corner and off we go…which leads to a favourite Dilbert cartoon of mine.

Dilbert.com

Delivering a good wireless experience is not ‘plug and play’, but it is a lot less painful if the right approach is used. Firstly never use consumer or low-end business wireless products, they will not deal with the simultaneous usage and throughput required, it needs high-end business wireless products to deliver a good service and even then capacity planning is critical. Wi-Fi is a shared medium meaning that if your client is connected at 54Mbps (and unfortunately although 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi is promoted as having a speed of 54Mbps in reality this is closer to 20Mbps), that is a best case assuming no one else is using the network at the same time.  As soon as another user connects the available bandwidth is shared between them. Put 25 users onto one wireless access point and each user may only see 800kbps!

Providing good bandwidth to lots of users therefore requires multiple wireless access points, which can be achieved in several ways, but it requires careful planning otherwise choas results with all of the wireless access points interfering with each other. This area is complex and will make this blog way too long but a truly managed environment is the only way to deliver this successfully and that requires:

  • 2.4 GHz & 5GHz 802.11n Wireless Access Points – to maximise throughput and share load across the wireless spectrum
  • Air Time Fairness – to stop older wireless clients slowing down and hogging the network
  • Beam Forming – this is a technique that focuses wireless signals on the client that is ‘talking’ giving better performance and reducing the impact of interference.
  • Band Steering – to balance wireless clients between the available frequencies
  • Load Balancing & Roaming – to ensure wireless clients are evenly and seamlessly distributed across the wireless access points
  • User Throtling – the ability to limit the maximum speed of a client connection
  • Client Isolation – the ability to stop one wireless client ‘seeing’ another wireless client on the network

The wireless portion then needs to be backed up by good switching and routing, typically all running at gigabit speeds. For critical media centres redundancy in terms of network design and power backup also come into play. Other factors include authentication (username and password, shared key, etc) and breaking the network into mutliple ‘virtual networks’ so that different services can be offered to different user groups.

3. Network Management

Once the network is designed and implemented it would be nice if it looked after itself but in a busy media centre there are still more challenges. The most common issue is interference, particularly in the 2.4GHz frequency range (which is the most common one for wireless clients) as many other items use the Wi-Fi frequencies too – bluetooth, DECT phones, ad-hoc wireless networks, RADAR, microwave ovens (yes I’m serious, particularly industrial ones) and various pieces of broadcast equipment such as video senders. These sources of interference can wreak havoc on Wi-Fi networks. A managed Wi-Fi network can automatically deal with some interference by switching channels and power output but in a busy media centre there is often no option but to use a spectrum analyser to constantly scan and identify interference sources so that they can either be eliminated or avoided. During the Sky Election Debate 113 sources of interference were identified and dealt with!

Spot the wireless cameras - always a concern for Wi-Fi

 Active monitoring of the network is also important, this gives real-time information on the status of all the devices such as the wireless access points, the data passing through the network and how much capacity is being used. This facilitates making tweaks to the network before problems occur. It also has the benefit of providing a post event report with lots of data on usage.

4. Support

Having people to provide good technical support to users in the media centre is one of the best ways of keeping  journalists happy. For example the Sky Election Debate happened not long after the launch of the Apple iPad in the US so a number of people had imported them from the US and hadn’t got to grips with them yet, the support staff not only helped them connect to the network but also gave some basic usage assistance. That level of support is highly appreciated and tends to lead to favourable comments in the articles they write.

Delivering a good experience in a media centre is not without its challenges but those challenges can be overcome by using the right tools for the job, good planning and a technical team that know that they are doing. At the end of an event when journalists come over to specifically say “it was the best wireless experience I’ve ever had” then you know it was a job well done.

Good Wi-Fi delivery can be critical

At the recent launch of the iPhone 4 Steve Jobs, Chairman and CEO of Apple, was forced to ask the audience containing the world’s tech press, to turn off their Wi-Fi devices because the demonstration he was giving on stage kept failing. Later it was suggested that some 500 Wi-Fi networks were operating in the room, overloading the network.

Tom McInerney, from event technology company Etherlive, gives some tips on how to stop this happening at your next big event to make the network meets attendee requirements.

  1. In our experience any large press pool will require significant amounts of bandwidth and wireless connectivity. Importantly they will require download and more significantly high upload speeds so information can be posted quickly. Many want to post pictures immediately, live blog or video stream the event to their audience and expect a wireless network to be fast and available.
  2.  Asses the quality of any existing Wi-Fi network on site. Is it going to support the number of attendees at the event who may want access concurrently? You need to think about who is going to support it on the day, and how you can ensure your organisers and demonstrations get the internet speeds they require. Many permanent networks are designed for a specific purpose which is probably not hundreds of people in one room at one time, many also only operate to older wireless standards (such as 802.11b) which cannot provide as much access as newer faster protocols (802.11n). So to make sure you have the coverage you need, think about deploying a network specifically for the event which has onsite support and can provide multiple bandwidth controlled networks, for example ‘Organiser’ and ‘Event Press’.
  3.  Press who attended the Apple event where either not provided with a shared network or have learnt to distrust the in house service and instead opt to setup their own (typically linked to the cellular network repeated locally) Due to the amount of channels to play with in the 2.4Ghz spectrum setting up their own wireless hotspot only causes more issues for everyone else. Imagine everyone in the room with a set of speakers trying to broadcast their own radio station…eventually you can’t hear anything. So setting up a high quality centrally managed wireless network, which everyone can share (one broadcast), is a much better idea – but it will need to work first time otherwise attendees will find an alternative.
  4.  Several products are available on the market which can scan the relevant wireless spectrum to confirm how noisy it is. At least if you can see too much is going on in real time you can act (perhaps changing demos) instead of having to ask the audience.
  5.  The 5Ghz radio spectrum has a lot more channels available than 2.4Ghz and is therefore less congested. The most modern laptops can use 5Ghz networks and should be actively encouraged to use that instead of 2.4Ghz. Several technologies exist that can encourage devices that have 5Ghz radios to join that network instead of the 2.4Ghz.